Shift, p.28
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       Shift, p.28
 

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 28

 

  ‘Yes, yes. I went to school with your father. And your mother, of course. ’

  He paused to give Mission time to respond. Mission ground his teeth together and said nothing. He let go of the man’s hand before his sweaty palms had a chance to speak for him.

  ‘Say I wanted to move something without going through Dispatch. ’ Mr Wyck smiled. His teeth were white as chalk. ‘And say I wanted to avoid the sort of nastiness that took place last night a few levels up . . . ’

  Mission glanced over at Jeffery, who seemed disinterested in the conversation. It was strange to hear this sort of offer from a man of authority, especially in front of a member of Security, but there was one thing Mission had discovered since emerging from his shadowing days: things only got darker.

  ‘I don’t follow,’ Mission said. He fought the urge to turn and see how far they were from the security gate. A woman emerged from an office down the hall, behind Mr Wyck. Jeffery made a gesture with his hand and she stopped and kept her distance, out of earshot.

  ‘I think you do, and I admire your discretion. Two hundred chits to move a package a half-dozen levels from Supply. ’

  Mission tried to remain calm. Two hundred chits. A month’s pay for half a day’s work. He immediately feared this was some sort of test. Maybe Rodny had gotten in trouble for flunking a similar one.

  ‘I don’t know—’ he said.

  ‘It’s an open invitation,’ Wyck said. ‘The next porter who comes through here will get the same offer. I don’t care who does it, but only one will get the chits. ’ Wyck raised a hand. ‘You don’t have to answer me. Just show up and ask for Joyce at the Supply counter. Tell her you’re doing a job for Wyck. There’ll be a delivery report detailing the rest. ’

  ‘I’ll think about it, sir. ’

  ‘Good. ’ Mr Wyck smiled.

  ‘Anything else?’ Mission asked.

  ‘No, no. You’re free to go. ’ He nodded to Jeffery, who snapped back from wherever he’d checked out to.

  ‘Thank you, sir. ’ Mission turned and followed the chief.

  ‘Oh, and happy birthday, son,’ Mr Wyck called out.

  Mission glanced back, didn’t say thanks, just hurried after Jeffery and through the security gate, past the crowds and out onto the landing, down two turns of stairs, where he finally reached into his pocket for the note from Rodny. Paranoid that he might drop it and watch it bounce off the stairs and through the rail, he carefully unfolded the scrap of paper. It looked like the same rag blend Mrs Crowe’s note had been written on, the same threads of purple and red mixed in with the rough grey weave. For a moment, Mission feared the note would be addressed to the Crow rather than to him, maybe more lines of old nursery rhymes. He worked the piece of paper flat. One side was blank; he turned it over to read the other.

  It wasn’t addressed to anyone. Just two words, which reminded Mission of the way his friend’s smile had quivered when they shook hands.

  Mission felt suddenly alone. There was a burning smell lingering in the stairwell, a tinge of smoke that mixed with the paint from drying graffiti. He took the small note and tore it into ever smaller pieces. He kept tearing until there was nothing left to shred, and then sprinkled the dull confetti over the rail to drift down and disappear into the void. The evidence was gone, but the message lingered vividly in his mind. The hasty scrawl, the shadowy scratch the edge of a coin or a spoon had made as it was dragged across the paper, two words barely legible from his friend who never needed anybody or asked for anything.

  Help me.

  And that was all.

  36

  • Silo 1 •

  FINDING THE RIGHT silo was easy enough. Donald could study the old schematic and remember standing on those hills, peering down into the wide bowls that held each facility. The sound of grumbling ATVs came back, the plumes of dust kicked up as they bounced across the ridges where the grass had not yet filled in. He remembered that they had been growing grass over those hills, straw and seed spread everywhere, a task hindsight made both unnecessary and sad.

  Standing on that ridge in his memory, he was able to picture the Tennessee delegation. It would be silo two. Once he had this, he dug deeper. It took a bit of fumbling to remember how the computer program worked, how to sift through lives that lived in databases. There was an entire history there of each silo if you knew how to read it, but it only went so far. It went back to made-up names, back to the orientation. It didn’t stretch to the Legacy beyond. The old world was hidden behind bombs and a fog of mist and forgetting.

  He had the right silo, but locating Helen might prove impossible. He worked frantically while Anna sang in the shower.

  She had left the bathroom door open, steam billowing out. Donald ignored what he took to be an invitation. He ignored the throbbing, the yearning, the hormonal rush of being near an ex-lover after centuries of need, and searched instead for his wife.

  There were four thousand names in that first generation of silo two. Four thousand exactly. Roughly half were female. There were three Helens. Each had a grainy picture taken for her work ID stored on the servers. None of the Helens matched what he remembered his wife looking like, what he thought she looked like. Tears came unbidden. He wiped them away, furious at himself. From the shower, Anna sang a sad song from long ago while Donald flipped through random photos. After a dozen, the faces of strangers began to meld together and threaten to erode the vision he held of Helen in his memory. He went back to searching by name. Surely he could guess the name she would’ve chosen. He had picked Troy for himself those many years ago, a clue leading him back to her. He liked to think she would’ve done the same.

  He tried Sandra, her mother’s name, but neither of the two hits were right. He tried Danielle, her sister’s name. One hit. Not her.

  She wouldn’t come up with something random, would she? They had talked once of what they might name their kids. It was gods and goddesses, a joke at first, but Helen had fallen in love with the name Athena. He did a search. Zero hits in that first generation.

  The pipes squealed as Anna turned off the shower. Her singing subsided back into a hum, a hymn for the funeral they were about to attend. Donald tried a few more names, anxious to discover something, anything. He would search every night if he had to. He wouldn’t sleep until he found her.

  ‘Do you need to shower before the service?’ Anna called out from the bathroom.

  He didn’t want to go to the service, he nearly said. He only knew Victor as someone to fear: the grey-haired man across the hall, always watching, dispensing drugs, manipulating him. At least, that’s how the paranoia of his first shift made it all seem.

  ‘I’ll go like this,’ he said. He still wore the beige overalls they’d given him the day before. He flipped through random pictures again, starting at the top of the alphabet. What other name? The fear was that he’d forget what she looked like. Or that she’d look more and more like Anna in his mind. He couldn’t let that happen.

  ‘Find anything?’

  She snuck up behind him and reached for something on the desk. A towel was wrapped around her breasts and reached the middle of her thighs. Her skin was wet. She grabbed a hairbrush and walked, humming, back to the bathroom. Donald forgot to answer. His body responded to Anna in a way that made him furious and full of guilt.

  He was still married, he reminded himself. He would be until he knew what’d happened to Helen. He would be loyal to her for ever.

  Loyalty.

  On a whim, he searched for the name Karma.

  One hit. Donald sat up straight. He hadn’t imagined a hit. It was their dog’s name, the nearest thing he and Helen ever had to a child of their own. He brought up the picture.

  ‘I guess we’re all wearing these horrid outfits to the funeral, right?’ Anna passed the desk as she snapped up the front of her white overalls. Donald only noticed in the corner of his tear-filled v
ision. He covered his mouth and felt his body tremble with suppressed sobs. On the monitor, in a tiny square of black and white pixels in the middle of a work badge, was his wife.

  ‘You’ll be ready to go in a few minutes, won’t you?’

  Anna disappeared back into the bathroom, brushing her hair. Donald wiped his cheeks, salt on his lips while he read.

  Karma Brewer. There were several occupations listed, with a badge photo for each. Teacher, School Master, Judge – more wrinkles in each picture but always the same half-smile. He opened the full file, thinking suddenly what it would’ve been like to have been on the very first shift in silo one, to watch her life unfold next door, maybe even reach out and contact her somehow. A judge. It’d been a dream of hers to be a judge one day. Donald wept while Anna hummed, and through a lens of tears, he read about his wife’s life without him.

  Married, it said, which didn’t throw up any flags at first. Married, of course. To him. Until he read about her death. Eighty-two years old. Survived by Rick Brewer and two children, Athena and Mars.

  Rick Brewer.

  The walls and ceiling bulged inward. Donald felt a chill. There were more pictures. He followed the links to other files. To her husband’s files.

  ‘Mick,’ Anna whispered behind him.

  Donald started and turned to find her reading over his shoulder. Drying tears streaked his face, but he didn’t care. His best friend and his wife. Two kids. He turned back to the screen and pulled up the daughter’s file. Athena’s. There were several pictures from different careers and phases of her life. She had Helen’s mouth.

  ‘Donny. Please don’t. ’

  A hand on his shoulder. Donald flinched from it and watched an animation wrought by furious clicks, this child growing into an approximation of his wife, until the girl’s own children appeared in her file.

  ‘Donny,’ Anna whispered. ‘We’re going to be late for the funeral. ’

  Donald wept. Sobs tore through him as if he were made of tissue. ‘Late,’ he cried. ‘A hundred years too late. ’ He sputtered this last, overcome with misery. There was a granddaughter on the screen that was not his, a great-granddaughter one more click away. They stared out at him, all of them, none with eyes like his own.

  37

  • Silo 1 •

  DONALD WENT TO Victor’s funeral numb. He rode the lift in silence, watched his boots kick ahead of himself as he teetered forward, but what he found on the medical level wasn’t a funeral at all – it was body disposal. They were storing the remains back in a pod because they had no dirt in which to bury their dead. The food in silo one came from cans. Their bodies returned to the same.

  Donald was introduced to Erskine, who explained unprompted that the body would not rot. The same invisible machines that allowed them to survive the freezing process and turned their waking piss the colour of charcoal would keep the dead as soft and fresh as the living. The thought wasn’t a pleasant one. He watched as the man he had known as Victor was prepped for deep freeze.

  They wheeled the body down a hall and through a sea of pods. The deep freeze was a cemetery, Donald saw. A grid of bodies laid flat, only a name to feebly encapsulate all that lay within. He wondered how many of the pods contained the dead. Some men must die on their shifts from natural causes. Some must break down and take their own lives as Victor had.

  Donald helped the others move the body into the pod. There were only five of them present, only five who could know how Victor had died. The illusion that someone was in charge must be maintained. Donald thought of his last job, sitting at a desk, hands on a rudderless wheel, pretending. He watched Thurman as the old man kissed his palm and pressed his fingers to Victor’s cheek. The lid was closed. The cold of the room fogged their breath.

  The others took turns eulogising, but Donald paid no heed. His mind was elsewhere, thinking of a woman he had loved long ago, of children he had never had. He did not cry. He had sobbed in the lift, with Anna gently holding him. Helen had died over a century ago. It had been longer than that since he’d lost her over that hill, since missing her messages, since not being able to get through to her. He remembered the national anthem and the bombs filling the air. He remembered his sister, Charlotte being there.

  His sister. Family.

  Donald knew Charlotte had been saved. He was overcome with a fierce urge to find her and wake her, to bring someone he loved back to life.

  Erskine paid his final respects. Only five of them present to mourn this man who had killed billions. Donald felt Anna’s presence beside him and realised the lack of a crowd was in fact due to her. The five present were the only ones who knew that a woman had been woken. Her father, Dr Sneed, who had performed the procedure, Anna, Erskine, whom she spoke of as a friend, and himself.

  The absurdity of Donald’s existence, of the state of the world, swooped down on him in that gathering. He did not belong. He was only there because of a girl he had dated in college, a girl whose father was a senator, whose affections had likely gotten him elected, who had dragged him into a murderous scheme, and had now pulled him from a frozen death. All the great coincidences and marvellous achievements of his life disappeared in a flash. In their place were puppet strings.

  ‘A tragic loss, this. ’

  Donald emerged from his thoughts to discover that the ceremony was over. Anna and her father stood two rows of pods away discussing something. Dr Sneed was down by the base of the pod, the panel beeping as he made adjustments. That left Donald with Erskine, a thin man with glasses and a British accent. He surveyed Donald from the opposite side of the pod.

  ‘He was on my shift,’ Donald said inanely, trying to explain why he was present for the service. There was little else he could think to say of the dead man. He stepped closer and peered through the little window at the calm face within.
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